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[Sep. 18th, 2013|10:39 pm]

Ryouma's knuckles ached, clenched on his knees. He bit the inside of his cheek and looked away from the little girl, clinging to her doll as if the strength of her grip could bring her father back.

"He sounds like a good man," Genma said. "Did he visit the shrine regularly? At the same time each day?"

"Most days." She caught her breath, wiped her eyes with a handkerchief her sister pressed into her hand. "If he didn't have to go back to the office after dinner, he liked to go to the shrine instead. He was praying for a good season... He took Miki-chan sometimes, but she had a cold that day, I couldn't let her leave."

"Was there anyone he owed money to?" Raidou asked. "Anyone he was in conflict with? I know he wasn't the only one to go missing—"

"Eight from this village," Genma murmured.

"—But I want to cover all the bases," Raidou concluded.

Hiroshi's wife—widow?—was shaking her head. "He owed money, of course, but Kobayashi-san's a good man, he knows what it takes to build up a business like this, and Hiroshi was making all his payments anyway. Some of the villagers owe Hiroshi money, because he lent it to them to buy this year's silkworms, but he never asks for payment until after the season is over. And there isn't anyone who dislikes him. He's the kindest man in the village! When Tadayuki-obaasan's roof washed away in the winter rains he was up there the next day with the men from the village, thatching it again, and he paid for the rice straw himself!"

"Did he have anything in common with any of the others who have gone missing?" Genma asked.

Fumiyo pressed the handkerchief to her mouth again and sank back, shaking her head. She was clearly too caught up in grief for her husband to spare thought for the others. Her sister Ayako wrapped an arm around her shoulders and said defiantly, "He didn't run off with any of them, and none of them killed him. Something in the woods got all of them. And it's not eight. It's twelve, now. There's a woman dead and her family gone missing from their home yesterday. Within the village walls." Her dark eyes burned. "Will you find them?"

"We'll find answers," Raidou said. It wasn't the promise she'd asked for, but maybe it was as close as he thought he could come. "Can you show us the house where the family disappeared?"

From the back of the room the little girl said, cold and clear, "I can."

She was on her feet, hugging her elbows, the doll laid carefully down behind her. Her mother made an anguished noise that broke on a sob. Miki's chin trembled, but she said, "I know where it is. I'll show you. And you'll kill whoever took my daddy."

Raidou said quietly, "Yes." He got to his feet and stood looking down. "We'll keep her safe, ma'am," he said.

Ryouma's throat hurt. Miki was older than he'd been—maybe seven or eight, not five—but he remembered that bottled-up desperation, standing at the gate for hours and searching every face that came in, begging every shinobi he saw for weeks if anyone had seen or heard of Kondo Ryuu. Konoha was at war then, though, and he hadn't had ANBU to send looking for his father.

They'd do better for Miki.

He pushed to his feet. "I'll look after her," he said.
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